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Hall of Famer Bobby Hull was a man who personified hockey and forever changed the game

On the ice, his slapshot couldn’t be beat. In the public eye, he was the ideal sports celebrity. But his private life had a darker side too

Hockey’s supreme individuals are distinguished by a defining characteristic. No one was more intense than Maurice Richard, no defenceman could handle the puck like Bobby Orr, no one could anticipate the play like Wayne Gretzky. And no one, but no one, could rifle the puck like Bobby Hull – no one before, no one contemporary, no one since.Robert Marvin Hull was born Jan. 3, 1939, in Point Anne, Ont. He died Jan. 30 at age 84, leaving behind one of the greatest legacies on ice. He introduced utter, abject fear into professional hockey over a 23-year career that spanned 16 National Hockey League seasons and all seven campaigns of its rival, the World Hockey Association (1972-79).



Before Mr. Hull’s arrival in 1957, there was no place for fear in the game. Once his mighty physique generated its maximum speed and strength, however, his slapshot was so powerful that spectators feared for the goaltenders who were obliged to face it – not to mention anyone else who might be near the line of fire. Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jacques Plante introduced his mask to the NHL on Nov. 1, 1959, two years after Mr. Hull’s big-time debut. Coincidence? Of course not.

Mr. Hull sports a toothless smile in 1962.

Within a few years other NHL goalies adopted facial protection, the few holdouts being seasoned veterans who weren’t comfortable adjusting to the new equipment. One who made a particularly slow transition was Glenn Hall, Mr. Hull’s teammate on the Chicago Black Hawks. He played games barefaced for several years after masking up for practices, where Mr. Hull would blithely fire away at random altitude: ice level, glove high, shoulder high, higher still.



Fitness specialist Lloyd Percival once estimated that slapshot at 119.5 miles an hour (192 kilometres an hour) a suspect report given crude instruments in use four decades ago, but one that easily eclipses the 100-102 m/h (160-164 km/h) readings that generally win “Hardest Shot” modern contests. Mr. Hull and his teammate Stan Mikita were pioneers of the curved stick, also known as the “banana blade” in their heyday for its bend of up to nearly four centimetres. Not only could the banana blade propel the puck faster, it could do so with unpredictable trajectory, sometimes dipping or veering on the way to its target. While Mr. Mikita was a superb player in his own right, the only contemporary believed to rival Mr. Hull for the raw power of his slapshot was his teammate and brother, Dennis.



Opponents, however, had to contend with more from Bobby than just his shot. He might have been the fastest skater of the ’60s, with no more than a couple of peers, and he was the hardest to stop once he built up a head of steam. At 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, he sported powerful shoulders and legs that could brush aside any defender who did not deploy the utmost of might and leverage against him. Opposing teams would routinely assign a right winger to “shadow” Mr. Hull, sometimes to the extent of ignoring offensive responsibilities altogether.

Eddie Shack of the Toronto Maple Leafs drapes himself around Mr. Hull in a battle for the puck at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1965.

In an era when minor-league seasoning was taken for granted, long before expansion and the entry draft created a proliferation of 20-year-old stars, Mr. Hull made a direct leap from the junior St. Catharines Teepees to the Black Hawks as an 18-year-old in 1957 and would never play a game in pro hockey’s minor leagues.

After two respectable seasons, he achieved stardom in 1959-60 with league-leading figures of 39 goals and 81 points and his first of three Art Ross trophies as NHL scoring champion. He was 11 weeks past his 21st birthday when the season ended and it was just the beginning of a glorious career. In 1961, Chicago won its only Stanley Cup since 1938 with Mr. Hull tallying a playoff-high eight goals.



In 1961-62, he became the third man in NHL history to register a 50-goal season; he was the first to eclipse that standard with 54 in 1965-66. He broke his record, again, with 58 three years later and totalled five NHL seasons with 50 or more goals. His 97 points in 1965-66 was a record until 1968-69, when his 107-point effort was runner-up to the 126 posted by former linemate Phil Esposito, who had been traded to the Boston Bruins. Mr. Hull was selected to be the First All-Star Team left winger a record 10 times in a career that produced 610 goals and 560 assists for 1,170 points in 1,063 games – nearly two-thirds of them in the Original Six era.

Perhaps the number most appropriate to Mr. Hull, however, is the 9 he wore on his jersey for most of his career. He wore 16 in his early seasons and 7 when the Black Hawks won the Stanley Cup, but soon after that switched to 9 in emulation of Gordie Howe and Mr. Richard.

Winnipeg Arena, 1989: Mr. Hull watches as his old number, soon to be retired, is hoisted into the rafters.

Celebrity was a comfortable state for Mr. Hull, who became a popular spokesman for products on both sides of the border. His physique and broad smile made him stand out even in men’s wear advertisements in which he shared space with the likes of baseball’s Mickey Mantle and football’s Paul Hornung.

In public, Mr. Hull was the ideal sports celebrity, happily chatting with admirers and accommodating every autograph request – even to the point of holding up his teammates’ postgame plans. (“We operated on Hull Standard Time in those days and some guys got a little tired of waiting on the bus until Bobby was ready,” Chicago forward Lou Angotti once said.)

It was that image that prompted Winnipeg franchise owner Ben Hatskin to lure Mr. Hull to the newly created World Hockey Association in 1972. Wary of the credibility-strapped WHA, Mr. Hull cavalierly said it would take a million dollars upfront for him to switch leagues. When Hatskin responded with a five-year deal at $350,000 a season in addition to the $1-million bonus, it still didn’t make an impression.

“I thought it was a joke,” Mr. Hull would tell ESPN years later. “I pretended to go along with it, just to scare Chicago. Then my agent said, ‘Bobby, these guys are serious.’”When the Black Hawks wouldn’t budge from their tough negotiating stance, Mr. Hull verbally agreed to the WHA deal and stuck to it even after Chicago made a lucrative 11th-hour offer.

“There was nothing binding,” Mr. Hull said in Ed Willes’s book The Rebel League. “I could have backed out any time I wanted. But I gave them my word and I felt I had to live up to it.”

June 27, 1972: Mr. Hull, with a rush-hour crowd of nearly 3,000 Winnipeggers watching, signs a five-year, $3-million contract to play for the Winnipeg Jets, then part of the World Hockey Association.

With the Golden Jet under contract, Winnipeg became the Jets and the WHA became viable. The league contracted with each season as franchises in weak markets went bankrupt until folding in 1979 with the Jets and three other teams entering the NHL. While the WHA lasted, however, the Jets were its model franchise, winning three championships. Mr. Hull had 51 goals and 103 points in the league’s initial season despite missing the first month while the Black Hawks contested his contract in court. He was the league’s most valuable player that season and in 1974-75, when his 77 goals surpassed Mr. Esposito’s NHL then-record of 76. With four 50-goal and five 100-point seasons, Mr. Hull tallied 303 goals and 638 points in 411 WHA regular-season games.

He also became an outspoken advocate of clean hockey. He ultimately expressed his distaste for escalating goon tactics in both leagues by staging a one-game personal strike in protest. With the arrival of centre Ulf Nilsson and right winger Anders Hedberg from Sweden in 1974, the Jets featured one of the most prolific and creative forward trios in hockey history.

Mr. Hull played only four games of his last WHA season, opting to retire at 39. But returned to action a year later for a swan song in the NHL, playing 18 games with the Jets and nine with the Hartford Whalers as a teammate of Mr. Howe. An enthusiastic cattle rancher throughout much of his hockey career, Mr. Hull devoted his greater attention to that pursuit and earned a reputation as an astute authority on cattle breeding.

June 27, 1972: Mr. Hull, shown with wife Joanne at rear, Jets owner Ben Haskin at back right, and sons Bobby Jr., Brett and Blake.

There was also a tarnish to the lustrous image of the Golden Jet. Married briefly as a teenager, his 20-year marriage to his second wife, Joanne, was punctuated with mental and physical abuse. Their 1980 divorce revealed episodes as disturbing as Mr. Hull suspending her over a balcony on one occasion and threatening her with a loaded shotgun on another. He was estranged from his five children, including Brett, who retired in 2005 with 741 NHL goals – 131 more than his father’s total. Mr. Hull’s third wife, Deborah, dropped assault charges against him in 1986 but he did plead guilty to attacking a police officer in the same incident. In 1998, he was quoted making racist statements in a Moscow Times article, though he later denied them and said he planned to sue the paper.

Bobby Hull, the embodiment of an athletic idol, ultimately revealed his human shortcomings. For decades, however, he was the man who personified hockey and he carried that mantle with his own distinctive blend of power, energy and charisma.

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